The Five Things Our Dogs Want for Christmas
Our dogs are living with aliens–us. They may love us deeply, but they still spend much of their life confused. After all, dogs are living in a world in which we yell at them for eating poop, and then pick it up and hoard it ourselves. We have five synonyms for one command, change the rules day by day, and say one thing with our voices and something different with our bodies. The best gift you can give your dog is to spend some time during the holidays and ask yourself: How can I make life more clear, and thus easier, for my dogs? No matter how brilliant we are with our dogs, surely every one of us could pick one potential source of confusion and clear it up for 2014.
What, you say you couldn’t find any of this at the store this season? And the cupboards are bare of patience at your house? Ah, but wait, I see some hiding in the back closet, just waiting for you to pull it out from behind those jeans that you can’t wear anymore. (The jeans that you can’t throw away because someday you’ll be able to wear them again? See? You ARE patient!) The fact is, we all can profit from valuing patience as a virtue. Patience that our Corgi still pulls socks out of the laundry even though we developed a brilliant training plan and followed it to the letter. Patience that our Great Dane insists on pooping in the middle of the driveway where our visitors always walk to enter the house. And, most challenging of all, patience with ourselves for being human, as in “To err is human, to forgive divine.”)
Just like us, dogs need a balance of rest and stimulation. Of course, every dog needs a slightly different balance, but sleeping all day and night on the couch isn’t any better for dogs than it is for people (with exemptions for the elderly or the infirm). Being bored isn’t fun for anyone, and it’s not good for any animal who needs stimulation to keep the wheels of mind and body well greased. I’m not saying your dog needs to enter graduate school and get a degree in engineering. I am saying that dogs can get bored, just like you, by walking the same walk every day, doing the same thing every day, and never having to think about much of anything at all, except when the dinner bowl is going to get filled. At the same time, dogs need peace and quiet, a chance to refresh and lay down the confusions and complexities of living in a social system that often makes no sense. Lately I’ve seen an increasing number of dogs who I suspect are exhausted: Between agility and trick class and the dog park and doggie day care, the poor things need some time to just chill out. Being happy is often about finding the right balance, so ask yourself: How is the balance for you right now? How is it for your dog? Do you need to do some re-balancing?
Dogs are like people–some come with an inherent ability to react to life’s challenges with calm, noble stability, while others bob around like a boat without an anchor. The latter is a far more common personality type, and just like us, most dogs need to learn to control their emotions lest they sink the ship. I remember watching a five-year old boy have a melt down in a restaurant because his mother cut his sandwich IN HALF instead of in quarters. He kept scream-sobbing “YOU CUT IT IN HALF!!!” and while we all watched with sympathy for his mother, and amusement at the extremity of his distress, we also remembered what it felt like to have your world destroyed because, well, someone cut the sandwich in half. Children learn, as they mature, that frustration and fear and anger are all a part of living, and that they’ll find ways to cope with them and damp down their intensity. Dogs learn the same–or they don’t. I’ve seen dogs lose it, just like that little boy, when they were pulled away from a window, or prevented from running up to another dog. Dogs don’t scream-sob, at least not very often, but they do turn and bite when they are overwhelmed with frustration. Helping them learn to cope is a priceless gift that only we can give them.
Silly, goofy moments of pure foolishness, with no pressure to perform and where absolutely nothing matters except having a good time. It’s true that not all dogs play in the way often define it; Tootsie has no concept of object play at all, for example. But every once in a while she begins tearing around the yard in circles, after watching Willie do the same with a toy in his mouth. She looks overwhelmed with joyful abandon and finishes by running up to me with her eyes sparkling and her face shining. Of course, none of us know what is going on inside her head at that time, but I’d bet a lot of money that it can be summed up as “Wheeeeeee!” Tootsie is a good reminder for us to define play loosely; just because a dog doesn’t play fetch doesn’t mean you can’t play together. There are so many games we can play with our dogs, like “Can you find the sausage I hid in the tree bark?” Tootsie and I, for example, go on Treasure Hunts, where we look for the treats scattered in the grass or the snow. This year, metaphorically wrap up the present of play for your dog, and think about ways you can add some more games to the mix. You don’t need to buy anything, all you need is some creativity and the motivation to take the time. I’d write more, but it’s time to go play some more with Tootsie and Willie…
May the New Year be full of peace and exhilaration, in just the right amounts, at just the right time